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Safety focus of Senate bill named after Arkansan who died after buying poppy seeds online

by Frank E. Lockwood | April 4, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is shown on Capitol Hill in this file photo.

WASHINGTON -- Senate legislation introduced Wednesday would prohibit the sale of opioid-laced poppy seeds in the United States.

Known as the Stephen Hacala Poppy Seed Safety Act, the bill is named after a 24-year-old Fayetteville man who died after drinking tea made with seeds he'd purchased on

Wednesday was the third anniversary of Hacala's death.

U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman, both Republicans from Arkansas, are the Senate sponsors. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., has introduced similar legislation in the House.

The University of Arkansas graduate's sisters and his parents, Steve and Betty Hacala of Rogers, were on Capitol Hill when the bill was formally submitted. Family members also met with officials from the Food and Drug Administration, urging them to protect consumers.

"I hope that before this bill passes, that the FDA will act," Cotton said. "Regardless of what the FDA does, I'm confident we're going to pass this bill and get it signed into law to make sure that no other family has to go through what the Hacalas went through."

When Rogers police officers knocked on the Hacalas' door three years ago and informed them of their son's death, "I thought I was living a nightmare," Steve Hacala said. "We all miss him terribly. Every day."

"It's a giant hole," Betty Hacala said.

"It's a hole that just doesn't get filled," Steve Hacala said.

At least 12 deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to drinks tainted with drug residue found on poppy seeds or seed pods, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which describes itself as "America's food and health watchdog."

Steve Hacala filed a lawsuit last month in Washington County against Amazon and against Sincerely Nuts Inc., the company listed as the seller on his son's order. An amended version of the complaint was filed Tuesday.

The 5-pound bag of Sincerely Nuts Whole Blue Poppy Seeds, which the younger Hacala purchased for $29.99, was "laced with enough morphine and codeine to cause death by accidental morphine intoxication, all without any warnings to consumers," the suit states.

Stephen Hacala suffered from insomnia. It is believed that he was drinking the tea "in an effort to provide relaxation to aid him in sleeping," the suit states.

By manufacturing, selling and distributing the seeds, the defendants violated the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, the suit alleges. It also includes claims for products liability, negligence and breach of warranty.

Also Wednesday, the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration to "jointly clarify that it is illegal to import and distribute contaminated poppy seeds and that those who do are subject to federal prosecution."

"Poppy seed teas are responsible for numerous cases of addiction, overdose and death," said Peter Lurie, the center's president. "This little-known aspect of the opioid epidemic does appear to be worsening in terms of its toll. The FDA and the Department of Justice are aware of the problem but have failed to fully exercise their authorities."

Steve Hacala, who has welcomed the center's advocacy on the issue, said his family's strategy is multipronged.

"We're using every single channel possible to bring a stop to the sale of morphine-laced poppy seeds. So we're attacking this from the legislative perspective. ... We're also trying to attack this through the various regulators, enforcement agencies like the FDA and the DEA. And we're also wanting to use the courts, in this case filing civil action, to bring a stop to these [sales]," he said.

The family's goal is to save lives, not reap windfalls, Hacala said.

"Any proceeds that come from that lawsuit we're going to donate to charity," Hacala said. "We're going to establish a charity in Stephen's name, and we want to focus any proceeds toward continuing to advocate for this issue if it's not resolved, or addiction ... issues in general."

Since learning of Stephen Hacala's death, Cotton has made the issue a priority, urging federal agencies to take action and lobbying online retailers to drop the product.

Walmart quickly agreed to cut off the sales, Cotton said Wednesday. Other retailers, including Amazon, continue to make them available.

A year ago, Cotton gave a speech on the Senate floor highlighting the risks posed by unwashed poppy seeds.

Steve Hacala said he's been "very impressed" by Cotton's advocacy.

"He made a commitment to us that he and his office were going to stay engaged until we solved this. And I have to say, Tom has lived up to his word," Hacala said.

The family has also urged officials in Arkansas to take action.

In July, state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge wrote to online retailers Amazon, eBay and Etsy, warning them that the unwashed poppy seeds available online "contain substantial amounts of morphine, codeine and thebaine."

Amazon declined to comment Wednesday evening. Sincerely Nuts could not be reached for comment; its office had already closed for the day.

A study by researchers at Sam Houston State University determined it is "possible to obtain lethal doses of morphine from poppy seed tea if moderate volumes of tea are consumed."

While washed seeds are safe, unwashed seeds can be purchased "with no current legal repercussions or regulations." But brewing poppy seed tea "can have fatal consequences," the 2017 paper noted.

Losing a child is "devastating," and the pain doesn't go away, Betty Hacala said.

For now, she is fighting to change the law "in Stephen's name, in his honor," she said.

"It's not easy. Trust me; it's definitely like a roller coaster," she said. "You feel these waves of grief coming and going all the time, but I get these little sparks of joy when I think: 'Something may come out of this. Some family may avoid what we went through in his name.' So that keeps us going."

A Section on 04/04/2019

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